Joanna Hershon on Building Stories from a Character Up, Research, and Making the “Right” Decision

 joanna with kids2Last week, author Joanna Hershon came to Amherst to speak about her new book, A DUAL INHERITANCE.  Hershon started the evening with a reading from her novel, which was published by Ballantine in May.  She set the scene and read about the 15 year old daughter of one of the protagonists who finds her inebriated friend’s father in his workshop, having just sliced off two fingers.  They are alone and in a remote place and she’s charged with piloting him to the closest medical clinic, by motorcycle through narrow mountain roads.   The scene, based loosely on an experience Joanna had at school, grabbed everyone’s attention and spurred many questions about her writing process.

She shared that rarely do her books come to her in a flash, but often start with a character or a scene and build steadily through the writing.  She has found that making decisions and following through on them, whether they remain a story element or not, is imperative to her process.  She talked about the tendency to fret about making the “right” decision (rather than taking some action) as being a true impediment to creativity.  She’s not a writer who documents or takes a lot of notes about her experiences.  Rather, she seeks to pay attention, to be in the moment and trust that these experiences will serve her at the right time.

Other encouragement she offered was about the research process.  Research plays a big part in her writing life.  A DUAL INHERITANCE spans fifty years and was loosely inspired by a friendship born out of her father’s college experience.  She turned to many people for insight and information, including details about doing business in China in the 1980s, documentary filmmaking, and living in Haiti and Africa as an American trying to make a difference in impoverished communities.  She attributes fearlessness about reaching out to people and asking questions as a key element to her success.  Especially in the internet age when just about anyone can be reached via email or personal websites, this accessibility to all kinds of people is an asset to be tapped.  People are amazingly open when given an opportunity to talk about their passions and expertise.

She also discussed the value of different kinds of relationships and staying connected to people as you go through life.  To illustrate, she shared the story of a friend she met years ago with whom she shared a love of books.  That friend, then an editorial assistant,  was the first and only person to read Joanna’s work when she was seeking representation.  Subsequently, Joanna became her client and remains so through the publication of Joanna’s fourth book and beyond.

A DUAL INHERITANCE has appeared on many best reads for summer lists, including Serendipity Magazine, serving Westchester and Fairfield counties, which recently named it a “Literary Standout.”

Joanna with kids Joanna signing

 

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